Short-circuiting dangerous immune cells to treat asthma

10 November 2017
Key Researchers
Laboratory Head
Dr Rhys Allan in a laboratory
Dr Rhys Allan leads a research team searching for
new treatments for thunderstorm asthma.
Thunderstorm asthma is a type of allergic asthma that can be life threatening, affecting asthmatics and even people who don’t even know they have asthma.

Institute researchers are searching for new ways to treat thunderstorm and chronic allergic asthmas by targeting the immune cells that drive asthma.

At a glance

  • Thunderstorm asthma is a potentially life-threatening condition
  • Institute researchers have found a way to short-circuit immune cells to treat thunderstorm and chronic allergic asthma
  • The team has identified promising lead drugs that could be used to short-circuit these immune cells
  • More funding is required to continue the research

The thunderstorm asthma problem

Thunderstorm asthma is caused by an allergy to small particles of rye grass pollen in the atmosphere, associated with thunderstorm conditions. The thunderstorm asthma ‘season’ runs from October to December in Melbourne, though the weather conditions that drive the disease can occur at other times.

In November 2016 Melbourne experienced a thunderstorm asthma emergency that was an unprecedented crisis; the epidemic led to the deaths of nine people and saw thousands visit emergency departments in a 24-hour period.

Institute researchers Dr Rhys Allan and Dr Christine Keenan are working on a project to identify new treatments for allergic asthma by targeting the immune cells that cause the disease.

What are we doing to improve asthma treatments?

Animation still of DNA and epigenetic tags

Institute researchers are searching for new asthma
treatments that would work by erasing tags on dangerous
immune cells, causing them to ‘short-circuit’. Still from
WEHI.TV animation X-Inactivation and Epigenetics

Dr Allan said the team was looking at developing drugs that would rewire the circuitry of asthma-causing immune cells as a way of treating asthma.

“We have identified a protein that we can target to short circuit asthma-promoting cells, blocking them from driving the runaway inflammatory immune response that causes asthma,” he said.

“To do this, we reprogram the asthma-promoting cells by erasing tags on the DNA, causing the cells to ‘short-circuit’. When these cells are reprogrammed in laboratory models, they cause less airway damage and inflammation after allergic triggers.”

Finding new drugs

Dr Keenan said the most commonly used asthma medicines were developed around 50 years ago.

“While these drugs are effective for many people, many of the drugs simply mask the symptoms of asthma, rather than targeting and treating the specific immune cells that cause allergic asthma,” she said.

“New, targeted drugs that are cheap to produce, easy to administer, highly specific and widely effective are needed.”

Dr Allan said the next step was to find specific drugs that strip the tags off asthma-promoting cells to rewire them and render them harmless. These drugs not only have the potential to treat allergic disease such as asthma and food allergy but also cancers.

“We have already identified promising lead drugs, but need more funding to continue our work into new treatments,” Dr Allan said.

To discuss making a donation to Institute research contact Sally Elford at elford.s@wehi.edu.au or call +61 3 9345 2345. 

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